American Life, Family, Holidays, Terrorism

What a Difference a Day Makes

Whether you’re in the oven or at the beach, you’re still roasting.

On holidays, which is any time of year we manage to be together, our family likes going to the beach while dinner is cooking. (Alternate itinerary: hiking along a ridge overlooking the beach.)

While this tradition proactively burns off a few calories, true, and does help you feel less anxious when dinner smells so ready but the timer says (sob!) 2 more hours, here’s the real reason:

You might just meet some nice people at the beach who don’t have any particular plans.

Naturally you invite the lonelies home for dinner and every holiday season thereafter receive beautiful cards with photos of their beautiful families.

This past Labor Day weekend, we went to the beach as usual, content in knowing this time someone else would surely have a grill fired up, burger accessories at the ready, and a full menu of guests.

The beach was perfectly foggy and still and there’s nothing like salt air to make everything seem right again on an end-of-summer field trip before everyone goes back to school and work…including Congress who, unlike most of us, just enjoyed a 5- or 6-week paid vacation.

Supposedly visiting their constituents in their home districts, although after checking their alibis, funny how no constituents actually saw them.

But I wonder how many of our elected officials drove home last weekend from the beach, where we should’ve looked for them in the first place, past pumpkin fields and Christmas tree farms, wondering as we did: is it just our imagination, or do these holidays keep coming on us earlier and earlier every year?

Today, the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I’m thinking: where has the decade gone?

I was driving to work that Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, when I heard the news over the radio. At first, it sounded like a replay for an anniversary piece about some other attack. Maybe the World Trade Center bombing? I scanned my memory for that date and came up empty.

Then I passed Starbucks and saw an out-of-place big-screen TV. I slammed on my brakes. Inside there were 4 baristas serving no-one and 100 customers ordering nothing.

Once we saw that infamous replay of the 2nd plane, United flight 175 from Boston to LAX, hitting the Twin Towers, any hope this was nothing more than a tragic accident was gone, overtaken by fear: at this very moment, are there more planes, circling over more cities?

Maybe even Seattle?

My colleagues and I dribbled into work, some learning about the attack for the first time, others already knowing and wandering around in a daze.

Facilities was broadcasting CNN onto movie screens in large conference rooms all over campus. Conference rooms filled with employees ‒ eerily silent, frozen in place ‒ missing meetings, phone calls, lunch, dinner…because nothing mattered except finding loved ones, and loved ones finding us.

And finding out who had done this, and why, and how in the world they’d gotten away with it.

(I didn’t realize until the next day that my family, mistakenly thinking I was on the East coast, had been trying frantically to reach me and getting voice mail.)

Then came our collective amazement ‒ and anger ‒ at how within hours of the attacks the FBI had identified all 19 perpetrators on the 4 airplanes and published detailed bios, yet somehow in all the months and years prior to 9/11 had never identified them at all, let alone as dangerous.

Despite bizarre details, telling anecdotes, and red flags just screaming for follow-ups that never happened. Right up until the very day of the attack.

(To be fair, the CIA already knew 2 of the men, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were members of al-Qaeda with strong Islamic militant credentials, but because the CIA didn’t share that knowledge with the FBI or Immigration, known terrorists were given US visas with warm welcomes. Warm welcomes they promptly repaid by killing thousands of Americans.)

A few years later, the 9/11 Commission published a damning report. I read it ‒ all 585 pages ‒ and found it well-written, even engrossing. But a stark reality stayed with me: as long as we have at least 15 different intelligence agencies, with varying levels and traditions of secrecy, competing for funding and credit, even another disaster as devastating as 9/11 ultimately can’t and won’t prevent the intelligence community ‒ umbrella bureaucracy or no ‒ from eventually sliding back into exactly the “we-just-didn’t-connect-the-dots” situation that terrorists love.

In which they thrive.

In which, while TSA gropes kindergarteners, scrutinizes our brand choices in toothpaste, and wipes the insides of our pockets for explosives residue, young men traveling with no luggage, from countries with known terrorism risks, whose own fathers have reported them to the authorities saying they’re dangerous, can still buy one-way airplane tickets to the United States.

With cash. No questions asked.

But how a good friend of mine ‒ a European woman in her 40s, a mother of American-born children, a classical musician with performance credits on 3 continents ‒ is inexplicably on the terrorist watch list and has to go through lengthy, humiliating secondary screening anytime she flies…all because she inherited her Arab maiden name from her immigrant great-grandparents.

But today we remember those who lost their lives on 9/11, the victims who never saw it coming, and some whose last moments on this earth were filled with horror, and the rescuers who looked at it square in the face and ran toward it anyway, to whom we owe a debt of honor.

After almost 3,000 memorial services and beginnings of the World Trade Center cleanup and tragic reprisals against Americans who “looked foreign,” I remember how profoundly 9/11 stayed with us through that fall. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s took on a new sobriety, even while family and friends carved pumpkins and counted shopping days, discussing holiday menus and what’s the story with him, her, and them becoming vegan since last year?

But before all that, before I moved overseas and began traveling to places where 9/11 was a news item, not an experience, I flew to Alaska.

The first state in which the FAA opened airspace after 9/11.

See, there were tourists on fishing trips in the wild who hadn’t heard anything about the terrorists attacks and were stranded, running low on provisions, day after day wondering why their rides never showed up. Kids who never made it home after school on 9/11 ‒ because their school bus is an airplane ‒ and were being cared for by generous local families.

Remote villages dependent on air freight, who’d started pooling their food, just in case.

The day of my completely full flight westward from Anchorage, the heat went out in our plane…everywhere except in the cockpit.

The flight attendants passed out blankets, coffee, and apologies. The captain left the cockpit door open for the duration of the flight, saying he hoped some warm air would flow back to us eventually.

This, just 3 weeks after 9/11.

Alaska tradeoff analysis: break countless new federal regulations on a flight carrying your postmaster, your pastor, and 10 of your relatives, or have to explain to your child’s teacher why you let his very pregnant wife in seat 3B catch cold on her flight home from the doctor?

And that’s how Americans went on after 9/11. Prudent, but not paralyzed. Devastated, yet determined.

Walking along the beach a few days later, we joked about our family tradition and how we really hoped to meet some people to invite home for dinner, but sadly no-one except us braved the icy wind off Bristol Bay.

Even the caribou stayed home.

Afterwards, we went to the airport to pick up other members of our dinner party, friends who were flying in for the weekend from the city.

We watched their plane circle around twice. Nothing ominous, we knew; just allowing another plane to take off first and giving visitors a 2nd-chance photo op of the tundra’s fall colors.

Then we watched it land safely, and soon family and friends, gifts and groceries, laughter and love came spilling out onto the runway.


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